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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 21 - THE EPISTLES OF 1, 2 & 3 JOHN

For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.374-380; R.H.Gundry, pp.448-453. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.445-458.

Authorship, date and place of writing
M.C.Tenney argues that the three epistles are by the same author, namely the author of the Fourth Gospel: "All four of these writings were probably produced about the same time and at the same place". [1] The letters are seen to be written by the apostle John to the Asian churches at the end of the first century. Against this, some scholars take the Gospel and 1 John to be written by the apostle, but take 'the elder' to be another writer (see 2 Jn.v.1; 3 Jn.v.1).

Background to the epistles
Heresy - which touched the person and work of Christ - is behind the writing of these epistles.  Christology concerned the church from this time to the fifth century.  The error faced by John is that of gnosticism, which had a reductionist view of Christ. Gnosticism was influence by Greek dualism, which separated the mind (which was spirit or pure) from the body (which by nature was material or evil).  M.C.Tenney explains how this presented intellectual difficulties when it came to the doctrine of the Incarnation:

"How, asked the Gnostics, could the infinite, pure spirit called God have anything to do with a material body? The complete union would, on their premises, be unthinkable. They proposed two solutions: either Christ was not really human but only apparently so, or else the Christ-spirit did not actually inhabit the human Jesus until the baptism, and left him before his death on the cross.  The former theory was called Docetism; the latter was called Cerinthianism. "[2]

1 JOHN


The First Epistle of John is more of a homily or sermon than a letter (it has no personal, historical or geographical details).  The authority of the 'I-you' sayings (1:5; 2:1-2), and the fact the writer is an eyewitness of Christ (1:1-4; 4:14), and one of the apostolic Twelve (note the 'we'), supports Johannine authorship.

The Gospel and 1 John
The opening subject of both works is the Word or Logos (1:1-5; cf., Jn.1:1-2).  The theme of the Gospel is 'Jesus is the Christ'; the theme of the epistle is 'the Christ is Jesus'. The Gospel is christocentric; the epistle is theocentric (note that God is light, love and life, e.g., 1:5; 4:16; 5:11).  There is a pastoral concern in both works.  John Stott says, "He wrote the Gospel for unbelievers in order to arouse their faith (20:30-31), and the Epistle for believers in order to deepen their assurance (5:13)". [3] There are common words in both works, e.g., light, life, love, world, darkness, sin, commandments, joy, abide, truth, believe, know.  These may be added to.  The dualism of the Gospel is found in the epistle, e.g., "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1:5).

The false teachers
John is concerned about those who would seduce and deceive (2:26; 3:7) and what they taught. They are 'false prophets' (4:1), 'antichrists' (2:18; 4:3) and 'deceivers' (2 Jn.7). They were numerous, and they had left the community of the church (2:19).

The false teaching
The error of the false teachers was doctrinal and ethical (2:26; 3:7).  Note these points:

  1. The doctrinal error concerned the person of Jesus. They denied that Jesus was the Christ (2:22), and that "Jesus Christ had come in the flesh" (4:2).  So John states that whoever denies the Father and the Son is antichrist (2:22), and "every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God" (4:3).

  2. The ethical error may be indicated by "if we claim..." (1:6,8,10; cf. 2:6.). Walking in the light brings confession and cleansing; abiding in Christ a holy life (1:7; 2:4,6). These false teachers said they loved God but hated their brothers (2:9).

Against the false gnosis John confidently says "we know" (see 2:3,5,29; 3:14,16,19,24; 4:13,16; 5:15,18,19,20).  Assurance, as confidence or boldness (Gk. parrēsia, boldness, confidence, assurance) features in 2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14.

The three tests of a true Christian
Three tests are applied to those who claim to be 'born of God'. They demand consideration:

  1. The theological test asks whether one believes Jesus to be the Son of God (3:23: 5:5,10,13). This involves belief in the incarnation (2:22-23; 4:2-3).

  2. The moral test asks if one is practising righteousness and keeping the Lord's commandments (2:4-6).  The believer does not practice sin (3:6,9).

  3. The social test looks for the evidence of loving others (2:9-11).

The three tests are applied three times.  Faith, love and holiness are all the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Christian has victory over the 'world' (5:4-5).

An outline of the epistle

M.C.Tenney's outline is aware of key words in the epistle:

  • 1 John: The Certainty of Eternal Life

  • Introduction: Life's historical manifestation (1:1-4)

  • Certainty through walking in the light (1:5-2:29)

  • Certainty through abiding in love (3:1-4:21)

  • Certainty through exercise of faith (5:1-12)

  • Conclusion: the resultant certainties of life (5:13-21).

Evaluation
The epistle is the Christian's challenge to live as Jesus did (2:6).  This is a possible goal because of the new birth (3:9) and the provision made through the atoning work of Christ and his work as our Paraclete (2:1-2).  The way of constant communion is that of confession and cleansing (1:5:10). 'Love' (Gk. agape) is the mark of Christlikeness.  The Lord's commandment of love is enforced (2:7:8: cf., Jn.13:34).  Verses worth underlining include: 3:1-3; 3:8; 4:16-18; 5:12-13.


2 JOHN

The readers
"To the chosen lady (Gk. eklektē kuria) and her children" (v.1).  The salutation is ambiguous.  No-one is certain whether John is addressing a Christian lady named Electra (or Kyria), and her family (or church), or simply a church and its members (cf., v.13).  The personal nature of the letter may support the view that a mother and her family is addressed (v.12).

An outline of the epistle
M.C.Tenney's outline is given here in full:

  • 2 John: Christian Fidelity

  • Salutation (vv.1-3).

  • Injunctions (vv.4-11): to love; to obedience; to vigilance; to refusal of error.

  • Conclusion (vv.12-13).

 Note the keyword 'truth in: Love in the truth (v.1); The truth in us (vv.2-3); Walking in the truth (v.4).

Content
Like 1 John, this epistle has much to say about love and obedience (vv.4-6).  The Lord's commandment is underlined again (v.5-6; cf., Jn.13:34; 15:10-12).  The warning against 'deceivers' (v.7) and doctrinal and ethical error is strong (vv.7-9).  Again the person of Christ is undermined.  False teachers are not to be entertained (vv.10-11).


3 JOHN

M.C.Tenney correctly states the Johannine epistles present a solid front against heresy.

An outline of the epistle
M.C.Tenney's outline of the epistle:

  • 3 John: The Practice of Truth

  • Introduction (vv.1-4)

  • Encouraging workers of truth (vv.5-8)

  • Reproving opponents of truth (vv.9-11)

  • Conclusion (vv.13-14).

Gaius is recommended for his faithfulness, love and appreciation of the truth.  Hospitality is encouraged (cf., "Practise hospitality": Rom.12:13).  Diotrephes is singled out as a self-opinionated leader (the NT church was not perfect!).  In comparison Demetrius is commended as one recognised by fellowship and the truth (or doctrine).

Content
So, John warmly recommends Gaius and warns him against the domineering Diotrephes. He shows the importance of giving hospitality to Christian workers (many ministers were itinerant at this time - such as evangelists and prophets).  The prayerful wish of v.2 is the 'shalom' (peace) of v.14.  Fellowship (Gk. koinōnia, fellowship, participation) is spelt out in terms of friendship, brotherhood and truth (cf., 1 Jn.1:3). Note: The formal good wishes of v.2 cannot be claimed as a promise of prosperity!


ENDNOTES

1. M.C.Tenney, p.374.

2. M.C.Tenney, p.375f.

3. J.R.W.Stott, The Epistles of John, TNTC, Leicester, Tyndale, 1964, p.23.



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